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Dark Days For The First Amendment

by Molly Ivins

Dalton is doing seven years for what he thought about
You would think the First Amendment's directions on freedom of speech and of the press ("Congress shall make no law") would be pretty clear to everyone by now. But here we are in the middle of 2001 with a journalist in jail in Texas and another citizen in prison for writing his thoughts in a private journal.

Vanessa Leggett, a freelance writer and teacher at the University of Houston's professional writing program, was sent to jail July 20 by U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon for contempt because Leggett refused to turn over her notes and tapes on a murder case.

As it happens, it was one of those high-profile, rich white trash cases for which Texas is famous. The victim was Doris Angleton, wife a millionaire bookie, shot to death in her River Oaks mansion (does River Oaks have an unusually high murder rate, or does it just seem that way?). Her husband, Robert the bookie, was charged with murder, his supposed motive being to save himself millions in a divorce proceeding. He was acquitted in 1998.

Robert's brother Roger was also implicated, but he committed suicide in jail before his trial. He left a note saying he had killed his sister-in-law in order to frame his brother.

Apparently the feds are still hot and bothered about this, and the Justice Department demanded Leggett turn over the tape of an interview she had with Roger while he was still in jail, as well as all her other material. Leggett is working on one of those true-crime books about the case and has neither money nor a publisher to back her. The case was a huge embarrassment to the Houston Police Department because, among other reasons, Robert Angleton turned out to be one of its informants.

Leggett was jailed without bail (writing teachers are such a menace to society) after a secret hearing and could face 18 months in prison.

Look, this is pretty simple. The cops and the Justice Department have people with guns and badges and subpoenas and the entire criminal justice system to back them up. A journalist is a citizen with a notebook and a pencil -- and in this case, a tape recorder, as well. Her lawyer, Mike DeGuerin, said, "The government is annexing the news media as investigative agents of the government by this process." Of course they are.

The case of Brian Dalton, 22, of Columbus, Ohio, reminds me of the late John Henry Faulk's dictum: We all think we're in favor of free speech, but actually defending it tends to make you "about as popular as a sick whore tryin' to get into the SMU School of Theology."

Oh good, now the civil liberties team has to defend a guy who has sick fantasies about molesting children -- what a delightful assignment. Makes a nice change from the Nazis and the KKK.

Nevertheless, Dalton, who has never even been accused of actually molesting a child, was arrested for violation of probation after his parents turned his private journal over to his probation officer, hoping it would get the young man some mental treatment. Instead, he got seven years.

Dalton had pleaded guilty in 1998 to possession of pornographic photos of children and was then given probation. His crime this time was writing a fictional account of three children being kidnapped, caged in a basement and sexually tortured. According to those who have read it, this is sick stuff. Nevertheless, it does not involve real children and it was not intended for sale or distribution.

Dalton is doing seven years for what he thought about. His lawyer says the reason Dalton pleaded guilty to the probation violation is precisely so the contents of the journal would not be made public.

How many of us have said from time to time, "I'd like to hit that so-and-so," or, "I could just murder that SOB"? That doesn't make us guilty of assault or murder. Actual child pornography, involving photos or films of real children, is clearly harmful to the children and appropriately illegal. But the Ohio law under which Dalton was charged is both broad and vague.

If writing one's thoughts, no matter how sick, in a private journal is against the law, the First Amendment is in deep trouble.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor August 7, 2001 (

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